Speaking to reporters en route to Mongolia late Thursday, Francis said he was looking forward to visiting a country that has just a few people, but with a culture that you need your senses to understand.
“There are only a few inhabitants — a small people, but a big culture,” he said aboard the ITA charter plane. “I think it will do us good to try to understand this long, big silence, understand what it means but not intellectually, but with senses.” He added: “Mongolia, you understand with your senses.”
On tap are official meetings with the Mongolian president and prime minister and a speech before Mongolian government, cultural and business leaders, followed by Francis’ first encounter with the bishops, priests and nuns who form the backbone of a tiny Catholic community of 1,450 that has only been in existence for a generation.
While Christianity has been present in the region for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence in Mongolia since 1992, after the country shrugged off its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution.
The Holy See and Mongolia have had diplomatic relations ever since, and a handful of missionary religious orders including Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have nurtured the tiny community through its first three decades of life.
Four Missionaries of Charity sisters — Jeanne Francoise from Rwanda; Chanmi from South Korea; Viera from Slovakia and Suder from India — run a nursing home on the northern outskirts of Ulaanbaatar with a capacity of 30 beds. There, they provide care for elderly people with mental or physical disabilities, or who are homeless, undocumented, or otherwise ostracized by their families.